Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
My question is short, but not so simple. I am an addict. Being an addict is very challenging, painful and lonely, but it’s extra difficult to suffer from this disease in the Jewish community. It’s such a stigma and I have to hide my whole life from everyone. My question is, how can I learn to accept and love myself, to forgive myself for all the wrong I’ve done when I know that if people knew I am an addict, I wouldn’t be accepted or loved or forgiven?
You raise a few extremely good points. Addiction is never simple. Although many people who have never had an addiction chalk it up to lack of self-control, this is simply untrue. Although the following paragraph was printed in the Yated (on July 28, 2017), it bears repeating.
Some people have a greater propensity to become addicts than others. While we don’t have a full understanding of the causes, there are a number of factors that influence the risk of addiction. One important factor is genetics. Some people are born with a predisposition for addiction. The second factor is environment. This includes friends and family relationships, economic factors, stress, abuse, and peer pressure. Development can also play an integral role. Since teenagers are still developing their self-control and decision-making skills they are more likely to try something risky such as drugs. That can lead to changes in their brain function, making it more likely for them to become addicts.
Despite the fact that addiction has been shown to be a disease, many people still view it as a weakness, or as a personality problem. In the Jewish community (as in many others), addiction is still largely stigmatized, and addicts feel that they need to hide their illness from the very people who would normally form their support system.
Until relatively recently, this was true for most forms of mental health issues. For instance, people who were depressed or anxious often felt completely isolated and alone. They were afraid to discuss their problems with anyone for fear of being seen as weak or crazy. Thankfully, due to the efforts of many—and the ease of obtaining information—the stigma associated with mental health issues has eased to a large degree.
Although this is true for addiction to some extent, the recognition and acceptance of addiction as an illness has been a much slower process. There are many in the Jewish community (and in the mental health community at large) who work tirelessly to change the perception, and to support those with addiction in the community.
It sounds as if you are having trouble accepting yourself. You assume that you wouldn’t be accepted, loved, or forgiven—and therefore feel that you cannot accept, love, or forgive yourself. Although you may intellectually recognize that addiction is a disease, you nonetheless feel that it is your fault. This is a perfectly normal feeling, but it should be challenged. If you acknowledge that you have a problem—separate from your identity as a person—shouldn’t you be able to love yourself despite your illness? If a close friend or family member confided in you about his problems with addiction, would you be so quick to judge him? Or would you accept, love, and forgive him? If you would, doesn’t this mean that there are likely people in your life who would non-judgmentally feel the same toward you?
A positive support system is very important in fighting addiction. Hopefully you’ll be able to identify those in your life who will be there for you without judging. If you are not already attending a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous, this can be a crucial tool in your recovery. It can also function as a support system separate from your personal one.
This brings to the fore the difference (in my vernacular) between guilt and regret. Guilt is backwards-looking. Based on the past, it tells you something negative about yourself, causing much anguish—and making it harder to change. Regret, however, acknowledges the problematic action, but focuses on the future in order to allow for positive change. You can feel good about who you are as a person, while regretting past decisions and working to forge a better future.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317
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